Films adapted into stage musicals come to Broadway banked by millions of dollars, and adorned with great expectations (not to mention fervent prayers for success).
But it’s always been thus: Neither the amount of talent, time and money invested in a film-to-stage show, nor the popularity of the movie that inspired it, can predetermine a production’s critical reception or box-office appeal on the gamblers’ row that is the Great White Way.
Just ask the producers of such recent attractions as “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Big Fish,” both of which closed early and chest-deep in red ink.
But then there are the sleepers that slip through. The refreshing “little” shows without big stars, and modest (by commercial theater standards) budgets, which manage to charm and nestle in for a long stay.
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“Once” is that rare kind of show. Based on the same-titled 2006 indie film (also a sleeper hit), it depicts the meaningful relationship between a disillusioned Irish busker and a Czech immigrant estranged from her husband. Developed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the musical moved on to a hit Off Broadway run at New York Theatre Workshop and reached Broadway in 2012.
It arrived with a single set: the battered barroom of a neighborhood Dublin pub. It was a love story that rested on the vital attraction between two people (called only Guy and Girl) who never so much as kiss. All the music (much of it folksy and Irish) was performed onstage, by the cast. And the ambience conjured by director John Tiffany was so deliberately casual, audience members could saunter up to the set’s functional bar before curtain time and order a beer.
Warm reviews, eight Tony Awards (including best musical) and a Grammy Award for best Broadway cast recording later, “Once” is still running on Broadway and is also thriving on London’s West End. And it has embarked on its first U.S. tour, which arrives at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this week.
Irish playwright Enda Walsh, known mainly for spikier, darker works (like his tragicomedy “The Walworth Farce,” staged successfully in Seattle last year at New City Theater), wrote the book for “Once.” It is closely and cannily adapted from John Carney’s original screenplay, which had been enhanced by on-screen improvisations by the movie co-stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová, who fell in love during the 17-day shooting of the film. (They are no longer a couple but remain friends.)
Though the musical was a far more expensive and lengthy undertaking, it possesses an extraordinary intimacy and physical simplicity, by commercial theater measures. That wasn’t a conscious ploy, Walsh insisted in an interview via email.
“We weren’t trying to make a work that was opposite to anything,” Walsh stated. “We just followed our noses — so it wasn’t a surprise to us that it worked, but it was surprising that so many people love it and keep coming back.”
The writer knew he had strong material to work with. The tender but unmawkish, dryly humorous film connects its principal characters through a musical collaboration that lifts them both at a betwixt-and-between moment in their uncertain lives.
And the pop-folk musical score was already a winner: The shivery ballad duet “Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award for its composers, Hansard and Irglová, and the soundtrack album was a best-seller.
Other Hansard-Irglová songs from the movie were reprised in the musical. But as the creators turned the 85-minute film into a show nearly an hour longer, they also added rousing instrumental and dance numbers and expanded minor roles into more substantial supporting ones.
“It was a very easy process actually,” Walsh explained. “The spine of the story is very strong — it needed to be shared amongst other characters. We wanted it to be ensemble playing with smaller but still significant stories spinning around the central one.”
At the center, however, that fragile, wistful “Brief Encounter” romance between strangers from different cultures who meet by chance, and, in a short interlude, enrich one another’s lives before parting, still stands.
“We preserved the quiet sadness [of the film], that’s for sure,” commented Walsh. “I think the audience is bringing their own love stories with them. I think that’s something you can feel in the theaters — the ghosts of past loves.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com